Bruce Sagan and lydia ievins, Northlands (Northlands Music, 2010)

While they may fall under most people's radars, there are thriving scenes in the United States for many different types of folk music from around the world.  Fans of the traditional music of Scandinavia, for example, form a small but very tightly knit community that host weekly dances in big cities like New York and in rural areas as well.  Bruce Sagan and lydia ievins are prominent American fiddlers who specialize in the Swedish and Norwegian traditions.  On Northlands, the pair perform a set of mostly self-composed tunes dedicated to specific musicians and dancers in the Scandinavian folk community in America.

Northlands is actually a difficult album for me to review objectively.  Not only do I know Bruce Sagan, but I'm close friends with several people to whom tunes on the album were dedicated.  So I'll describe the music here in some general terms, before contrasting Northlands with an album I reviewed here a few months ago.  The primary style of tune or dance in Sweden is the polska, a 3/4 style with emphasis on the first and third beats.  The polska may have originated in Poland, but in Sweden it has evolved into many distinct varieties, each one peculiar to a particular village.  Waltzes and marches are popular as well, as are schottisches, which evolved from Scottish hornpipes.  The Norwegian variant of the polska is called the pols; a typical pols is faster and more energetic than a typical polska.  The melodic styles in these tunes are rooted primarily in the Baroque period, although some tunes go back a little farther than that in spirit.  The tunes on Northlands reflect the Baroque side of Scandinavian music, with one fiddler playing an intricate melody while the other plays a tightly structured harmony underneath it.  You can really hear the history in the style when Sagan and ievins switch from the fiddle to the nyckelharpa, a Swedish keyed fiddle.  Featuring a set of droning strings underneath the four main ones, the nyckelharpa resonates with a very distinctive warmth. Sagan and ievins cover as broad a spectrum of Swedish and Norwegian fiddling tunes as you can cover on one CD, so they maintain quite a bit of variety within their two-fiddle, melody-and-harmony format.

This spring I reviewed an album called Duets Abroad by Ruthie Dornfeld, another American fiddler inspired by fiddling tradition in Scandinavia.  Dornfeld works primarily with musicians from Finland on Duets Abroad, but the Finnish fiddling tradition evolved from music originally imported from Sweden. (The Finnish word pelimanni is derived from the Swedish word spelmanslag, which roughly translates as "fiddler's group.")  At face value the two albums might seem similar, but they reflect very different facets of the same tradition.  Duets Abroad includes some very primal-sounding tunes rooted in the Middle Ages, along with some arrangements that are very anarchic and avant-garde.  By contrast, Northlands is more conventional, with more structured melodies and tight but exquisite harmonies.  I'm equally fond of both albums, but I can certainly see why they might not appeal to the exact same audience.

Northlands is a fine collection of tunes in the Swedish and Norwegian fiddling traditions.  Bruce Sagan and lydia ievins are both very capable composers, and their playing is superb throughout. I'm partial to "Polska til Margie" and "Kry på Dig, Carolyn! (Get Well Carolyn)" for personal reasons, but the waltz "Längtan efter Sally (Longing after Sally)" is really good as well.  People in the Scandinavian folk community, here in America or elsewhere, shouldn't need my recommendation to go get this.  Otherwise, anybody interested in well-played violin or fiddle music will find this worth their while as well.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Bruce Sagan giving a solo performance of "Get Well Carolyn"


BURLESQUE soundtrack

The art of burlesque involves both less and more than a striptease: less skin (but still skin) and more art. If you accept this, the Burlesque movie soundtrack makes a lot of sense: The songs here are both soulful classics and could be used to strip down. And they work very well.

This album has ten songs: eight from Christina Aguilera, two from Cher. Unlike Aguilera's far too electronic album Bionic, on Burlesque her voice is given a chance to shine -- and shine it does. Aguilera covers classic songs (Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold of Me" and "Tough Lover," Mae West's "A Guy What Takes His Time") extremely well, capturing the old-time soul of the songs without merely copying them. (Her teasing "But I Am a Good Girl" could also be from that era, but it's an Aguilera's original.) Aguilera also has what could be current club hits, from "Express" to a song that borrows the chorus from Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People," and these are terrific fun: a modern contrast to the classic-sounding tunes.

As for Cher, while I've always been indifferent to her music, her two songs on Burlesque are quite good. Her "Welcome to Burlesque" certainly feels like an intro to a burlesque club, and "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" is both sad and strong, about being tough when things get rough. Cher fans will be thrilled that she's singing again (even for just two songs), and they work well with Aguilera's music.

I haven't seen the movie Burlesque, but I really enjoyed the Burlesque movie soundtrack. This is sexy and fun, the classic and contemporary mixed together.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Some of Disney's biggest hits have been their takes on classic fairy tales, and this continues with their latest movie: Tangled. This cgi film is part action, part romance (very large part romance), part musical, part comedy -- and very entertaining.
The story starts with the evil Gothel (Donna Murphy) kidnapping the baby Rapunzel, princess of the kingdom, to use her magic hair to stay young. (The hair lights up, can heal wounds, and can reverse aging -- when sang to. Go with it.) Jump ahead several years and Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is about to turn 18, has lived her whole life trapped in a high tower, thinks Gothel is her mother, dreams of leaving the tower to see the floating lights that appear each year on her birthday, and has very, very, very long hair. In Disney tradition, there's a cute animal sidekick: Pascal, a chameleon. Gothel keeps the young heroine staying put with scary tales of the outside world, and passive-aggressive insults to her "daughter."
Enter the lovable rogue Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), who just stole the royal crown and is fleeing from the royal guard (and animal antagonist Maximus, who acts more like a bloodhound than a horse) and the Stabbington Brothers (Ron Perlman). Flynn winds up captured by Rapunzel (their "meet cute" involves her repeatedly bashing him with a frying pan) and agrees to take her to see the floating lights in exchange for her giving him the crown afterwards. What follows is a series of adventures, from painting and dancing to a tavern filled with soft-hearted ruffians.
Tangled is, simply put, a lot of fun. Mandy Moore may not be a teenager anymore, but she certainly captures the exuberance, wonder, and conflict of being a teen (especially when alternating between glee and guilt about defying her "mother" and leaving the tower). Flynn Rider is very close to Aladdin from, well, Aladdin, but Levi does a fine job as the thief who's in love with himself, but grows (of course) through the film. And Gothel is an unusual Disney villain, relying on guilt more than magic; Donna Murphy voices her beautifully, reminding me a lot of Marina Sirtis (best known as Counselor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation). The songs are mixed (Moore sings beautifully, though other songs are forgettable), and action is well done, there's plenty of comedy, and the romance is predictable but sweet. Tangled captures the enchantment of the fairy tale, making it a very entertaining movie.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch
(the only male in the theater when I saw Tangled)


THINGS WE THINK ABOUT GAMING by Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball

There are many facets to the world of gaming -- tactics, players, history, design, business -- and authors Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball act as agents provocateur in short form about almost all of them in their book Things We Think About Games. This collection of thoughts sometimes explains, often provokes, and will generate a lot of controversy.

The main body of Things We Thing About Games consists of 101 entries about the world of gaming by the authors. These entries range from several paragraphs to a single sentence; the main point, at the start or end of the entry, is always in bold type. Some of the entries are practical (how to determine if a die roll is cocked or flat), some are philosophical (the difference between strategy and tactics), some are aimed at players and some at game designers.

Many of the entries are opinionated, and often they will inspire debate, offense (the word "fuckwit" appears in four entries -- once in Latin), and possibly controversy. This is by design: as Tidball says in his introduction, "The hope is that short, provocative nuggets will spark your thinking and force you to make up your own damn mind." And this format works. While it's impossible to read Things We Think About Games from start to finish and agree with everything, this book does force the reader to examine what they agree with -- and why.

There's a lot more in Things We Think About Games than the authors' opinions. This book also has: introductions from Robin Laws (author of Hamlet's Hit Points) and celebrity geek Wil Wheaton; 26 more short entries from various gaming professionals; John August's "7 Lessons Learned from World of Warcraft"; and S. John Ross' essay "Cliche, Combat, Fellowship, Anarchy and Enigma." These additional writings are nice bookends to the entries from Hindmarch and Tidball.

Things We Think About Games generates the best sort of disagreement: the kind that gets you thinking and talking. The entries are sometimes too brief for their own good, as they can lack detail (the plus side is that this is a quick read: I read it twice on the day I got it) but they combine experience, attitude, and humor. The results of Things We Think About Games will be each reader's analysis of playing and/or designing games, player analysis and (hopefully) self-analysis, and a lot more thinking about the world of gaming.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

Blind Faith - Ben Elton (2007)

Ben Elton's Blind Faith might very well be a minor masterpiece. In many ways it's an update of 1984, with dashes of the Spanish Inquisition thrown in for piquancy. It dwells on themes which seem to obsess Elton - fame, notoriety, the nature of celebrity, human stupidity, the mixed blessing of the Internet and of technology in general, and so on. He's explored these before in, for instance, Chart Throb and Dead Famous. Blind Faith is darker than those books but still manages to be funny, no mean trick.

Here's a quote that stuck with me, and one that summarizes neatly the setting of the near-future dystopia and how we got there:

"Almost anything that we might wish to read could be located on the net instantly and traced straight back to us. The internet was supposed to liberate knowledge but in fact it buried it, first under a vast sewer of ignorance, laziness, bigotry, superstition and filth and then beneath the cloak of police surveillance. Now, as you know, cyberspace exists exclusively to promote commerce, gossip and pornography."

In the Britain of the novel, privacy itself is seditious. One is expected to post to the Internet constantly the most intimate details of one's life, preferably with video. Failure to do so risks accusations of "thinking you're better than me," and inciting mob violence. Any complaint about another's behaviour, no matter how small the complaint or how outrageous the behaviour, is considered an attempt to infringe on someone's right of self-expression. It's political correctness carried to farcical extremes. And we can see the hints of it already. In American today, "elite" seems to be a bad word unless applied to military units. The slope is getting slippery.

The plot is not revolutionary (pun intended). Our unhappy hero begins a slow resistance to the oppression that he suffers under. He starts to rebel, and the weight of the state moves against him. He becomes something of an everyman hero. And, well, anything more would be a spoiler.

Be warned, this is not a happy book. Parts of it are very funny, but it is dark. It is an indictment of society today and a warning about where we might go. Is it a classic? Time will tell. Is it playing in the same league as 1984 and Brave New World? Difficult to say. But make no mistake, it is playing the same game.

Overall Grade: A



While the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is an annual tradition, a coffee table book of other pictures from that photo shoot may have become an annual tradition as well. This year's collection is Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Paradise Found and it once again showcases beautiful women at beautiful locales wearing (or at least holding) beautiful swimwear.

The introduction goes from John Milton and Renaissance painter Tintoretto to Guns N' Roses in less than a page, but after that comes the reason for the book: swimsuit models, photographed in exotic places. (Actually, I count four photos before the introduction as well.) Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Paradise Found features eighteen models, photographed by five photographers, in places ranging from India to Chile to the Maldives to California.
As in previous Swimsuit Portfolios, each "chapter" begins with the photographer's comments on the model, followed by several pages of photos of that model, followed with that model's thoughts of the shoot and/or photographer. There are different local features, not to mention several animals and even two shoots revolving around WWII planes, but the main appeal remains the models.

As always, the combination of women and location is nigh-flawless. I didn't recognize the names of most of the models here (exceptions: Bar Refaeli and Brooklyn Decker) but the photographs are all stunning. This is the identical format to the previous portfolios, but considering how well it works, why change it? Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Paradise Found is indeed a collection of visual samples of paradise.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


It's kinda sad when a comedy manages to revolve around two amazingly broad stereotypes. This is the case with The House Bunny, an extended dumb blonde joke.

Shelley (Anna Faris) went from an orphanage to living her fairy-tale life as a resident of the Playboy Mansion. This nice-but-naive blond dreams of being a centerfold, but the day after she turns 27 she's thrown out of the Mansion for being "too old." After living in her car and a night in jail, Shelley wanders onto a college and discovers her perfect job: sorority mother!

Unfortunately, the only sorority that will take Shelley is Zeta Alpha Zeta, a group of misfits (to put it mildly) whose main spokesperson is Natalie (Emma Stone, who is at least more nerdy here than as the "nerd" in Easy A). Of course, the girls of Zeta House are about to lose their sorority and house unless they can get 30 pledges.

Every genre has its cliches -- and just about every cliche for the comedy is present here. Completely different types of people teaching each other? Check. Montages of unattractive people getting makeovers, then strutting in slow motion? Check. Montage of dumb character with lots of books to become smart? Check. Woman with an unrequited crush on a cute boy who gets him in the end? Check -- twice! Snobbish, petty characters who exist only to be booed and get their comeuppance? Check -- twice again.

What's missing here is humor or interest. Anna Faris has done this sort of character so often it's far too familiar to us, and no other actor in the movie stands out. There are no good jokes (Shelley's mispronouncing and misunderstanding words only goes so far) or good sight gags. And every character here is a cliche. Shelley is the continual dumb blonde. The women of Zeta House aren't just misfits, they're virtually freaks: the woman in the full body brace, the short woman who never speaks, the hunched-over woman with pigtails and unibrow, the very visibly pregnant woman, the heavily-pierced gloomy goth, etc. As for the baddies, they're preppies who are snobs, underhanded, and exist solely to be booed and get their comeuppance by the movie's end. As for dvd extras, they consist of a few deleted scenes, a few behind-the-scenes features, and a music video from Katharine McPhee, who is barely in this movie.

Director Fred Wolf scored a hit with the similarly-themed Legally Blonde, but the fish-out-of-water treatment doesn't work at all here. If you want to see The House Bunny, save yourself a lot of time and a lack of laughs and just read a few dumb blond jokes.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch


Shakira, SALE EL SOL

While there was a four-year gap between Shakira's Oral Fixation Vol. 2 and her recent She Wolf, it only took the Colombian singer a year after the latter to release Sale el Sol. This album returns Shakira to her Colombian roots, both in language and sound.

In the opposite format of She Wolf, Sale el Sol is almost exclusively in Spanish, with two English songs scattered through the album and three Spanish songs translated to English as bonus tracks at the end. As I speak virtually no Spanish, I can't comment on the lyrical contents of those songs. (The song "Islands" is a bittersweet song that's either about fidelity to a found love or a lack of adventuring after finding love -- or both.) As for the sound...

Sale el Sol has more of a reggaeton feel to the music than Shakira's other works. While there are slow ballads ("Lo Que Mas," "Antes de la Seis") and top 40-aimed tracks (the title track, "Tu Boca"), Shakira's mujsic here has a distinctly Latin feel, with bouncy piano and pulsing rhythms. (Appearances by Pitbull, El Cata and Residente don't hurt either.) The mix of these different styles works pretty well. Shakira has a distinctive voice, and it works well on all these styles of music. Sale el Sol isn't a brilliant or groundbreaking album -- but it is fun.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



What happens if, in the superhero universe, the bad guy wins? What follows the victory of the evil? This idea has been done before -- my favorite is the Astro City comic book story "Show 'Em All" -- and it's given the kiddie treatment in Megamind, the latest movie from DreamWorks Animation.

In a thinly-veiled take on the Superman mythos, two aliens are sent to Earth from doomed planets. Metro Man (Brad Pitt) lands in the home of a rich family, has powers like Superman, and gains the adoration of everyone, from his fellow students when young to the people of Metro City -- not to mention plucky reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey).

Then there's Megamind (Will Ferrell). This blue-skinned, large-headed alien landed in and was raised in a prison, was constantly overshadowed by Metro Man, and his only friend was a talking fish named Minion (David Cross). Megamind created elaborate mechanical devices (including a robot-gorilla body for Minion) and began a series of failed attacks on Metro Man ("He would win some, I would almost win others!") that often involved kidnapping Roxanne.

Until, to the surprise of everyone, one of Megamind's deathtraps works, leaving Metro Man's smoldering skeleton behind. Megamind easily takes over Metro City, which is fun at first but soon leaves him bored. He realizes that victory without an opponent is meaningless, so he gives Metro Man's powers to Hal (Jonah Hill), Roxanne's cameraman who's creepily obsessed with her. Naturally, things don't work out as planned...
If the above was the full plot of Megamind, this would have been a far better movie than it is. Unfortunately, the movie gets bogged down in several plots in its second half: a romantic story between Megamind and Roxanne, a friends-fighting story between Megamind and Minion, and even Megamind's discovery of how non-heroic Hal (superhero name: Titan) is gets stretched out. And the central question of victorious evil gets the kiddie treatment for the taregted young audience.

The voice talent here is... okay. Will Ferrell has a lot of fun as the egotistic megalomaniac villain who can't see that he's always on the losing side, and Tina Fey is quite good as the reporter who's never helpless and is the only one aware of the repeating patterns in this world. Conversely, there's nothing interesting or noteworthy about the voicework of Pitt, Cross, or Hill here.
As for in-jokes for comic book fans, the only real thing is a weak Marlon Brando impression, parodying Superman. The action is okay, neither boring nor all that exciting. Megamind should have been more interesting with its villain-as-protagonist premise, but it turns out to be just another kids' movie.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch


Kíla, Soisín (Kíla Records, 2010)

Kíla have been my favorite active traditional Irish band for well over a decade at this point.  Their style has generally been very energetic and percussive, but they've made a point of trying to do things a little differently with each record.  While working on their 2003 CD Luna Park, an album dominated by long extended jams, they formulated a long term plan to make a dance album next, followed by an album of slower, contemplative instrumentals.  Gambler's Ballet, the dance record that came out in 2007, didn't come across as much of a departure for the band, but their new album Soisín really sounds like nothing the band have done before.  Inspired by the writings of Máire Soshin O'Halloran, an Irish woman who went to Japan to join a Zen Buddhist monastery, Soisín finds Kíla at their most subdued and subtle.

On some level, you could probably regard Soisín as a side project involving most of the members of Kíla.  Regular members Lance and Brian Hogan barely contribute, replaced by Eoin O'Brien on guitar and Martin Brundsen on bass.  Rónán Ó Snodaigh, whose stream of consciousness Gaelic singing/chanting has arguably been the defining element of Kíla's sound, only contributes some light percussion on this album.  The tone for Soisín is set immediately with the first tune "The Kissing Gate," whose melody is hummed by the band's fiddler Dee Armstrong.  I don't recall Armstrong ever contributing vocals on any previous Kíla albums, so the presence of a prominent female vocal on track 1 of Soisín really represents a radical departure. 

The rest of Soisín is, as advertised, quiet and contemplative. This may throw some long-time Kíla fans for a loop, but on its own terms the album works rather well.  There is some really nice acoustic guitar work, done by both Rossa and Colm Ó Snodaigh.  (Rossa plays his usual vast assortment of instruments, while Colm branches out quite a bit from his usual role as flute and sax player.)  Highlights for me were Armstrong's "The Bearna Waltz," uillean piper Eoin Dillon's "1st Ave.," and the title tune, composed by Colm.

Fans of the mellower side of Irish music will probably like Soisín.  People who've come to expect a frenzied, groove-oriented sound from Kíla will need to leave their expectations at the door, but I think they'll be satisfied by the results as well.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Kíla premiered the new album in an Irish church.



While creators of roleplaying game adventures focus on elements such as characters and encounters, they may be missing a fundamental part of great storytelling: emotion. RPG expert Robin D. Laws takes a look at the emotional beats of three classics, often putting them in RPG terms, in his book Hamlet's Hit Points.

Laws begins by defining the types of beats used in a narrative: procedural (affecting the protagonist's external or practical goal), dramatic (affecting the protagonist's inner goals), commentary (details on the story's thematic elements), anticipation (foreshadowing success), gratification (a pure feel-good moment), bringdown (a pure feel-bad moment), pipe (providing information, often shown to be significant later), question (something the audience wants to know the answer to),and reveal (an answer). He also defines the main results of these beats as hope and fear. Laws uses icons for each beat, along with upwards-pointing arrows for hope and downward-pointing ones for fear.

With these elements defined and illustrated, Laws applies them to three classic works: Hamlet, Dr.No and Casablanca. For each work Laws breaks down the work into beats, describing how each beat affects the viewer and established a series of rises and falls in the hope and fear of the audience. The top of each page has the icons for the beats discussed below.

Hamlet's Hit Points is useful -- to a point. Laws does an excellent job illustrating how the classics work by carefully pacing out their rises and falls, manipulating the audience with a great degree of subtlety. He also writes well, with a good sense of humor ("Unhappy Nazis are always an up arrow") and a good way to bridge the world of theater and cinema with the RPG. My concern is that in the world of the RPG -- where player choices can send things in wildly different directions than what the gamemaster wanted -- planning procedural and dramatic beats is subject to the wildly unknown. Hamlet's Hit Points isn't essential to creating a great adventure or campaign -- but it does address a part of the RPG world that's too easily overlooked.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Eric Clapton, Clapton (Reprise, 2010)

Eric Clapton has spent nearly half a century among the upper ranks of rock's great guitarists. It's been a long time since he had anything to prove, but it's also been a while since he recorded an album with any sense of urgency.  With his new album, simply titled Clapton, the guitarist known as Slowhand once again pays tribute to his influences.  He's been down this road before, but the inclusion of some other American music from the first half of last century keeps the album from sounding completely redundant.

Much of Clapton focuses on the guitarist's primary passion, the blues.  The problem with that is that Clapton mined the best blues material decades ago, and he neither unearths a rare gem here nor breaths new life into a song with a particularly strong interpretation.  The guitar playing is a little too subdued, for one thing.  Like Mark Knopfler, Clapton has retreated somewhat from his guitar god persona in recent years.  Knopfler is the superior songwriter, though, and the stories he tells in his songs make his albums noteworthy even if his guitar playing is more low key.  Clapton, by contrast, has only one songwriting credit on the new album. While his singing has improved quite a bit over the years, it will never be his selling point.

Curiously, the songs that work the best on Clapton are somewhat in contrast to each other.  "My Very Good Friend the Milkman," a Fats Waller song from the 1930s, evokes Dixieland and Depression-era New Orleans. It sounds nothing at all like a typical Eric Clapton song, but in the context of this CD it is a breath of fresh air.  "Run Back to Your Side" is the one song co-written by Clapton, and it works because it sounds like Clapton in his heyday.

Otherwise, Clapton is just not all that interesting.  Eric Clapton has been there and done that, usually with more passion.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

"Travelin' Alone," the opening song on Clapton.

Taylor Swift, SPEAK NOW

Taylor Swift certainly knows her audience. The semi-country pop singer, now 20, is still singing about young love and young heartbreak on Speak Now, her third album. Fortunately she manages to make these familiar topics pleasant, even tossing in a few surprises here and there.

Most of Speak Now is about romance, either starting or ending. The romantic songs are largely sweet, where everything is glorious and sweeping. (The exceptions are the single "Mine" where financial troubles enter the mix, and the title track that has possibly the worst time to tell someone that you love them.) The breakup songs are surprisingly even, with Swift as much as the instigator as the victim of the failed relationships.

The album's liner notes say all the songs are about times Swift wished she had spoken up in her life, and fans can wonder how much of the songs are autobiographical. Is "Mean" about the Kanye West incident? Maybe -- or it could just be a response to all her haters. Is "Better Than Revenge" (which has enough percussion and electric guitar to be a Paramore tune) about her then-boyfriend Joe Jonas getting stolen from her by actress Camilla Belle? Probably. In any case, Speak Now continues to make Swift the girl next door who knows about longing and heartbreak (even while she's on the cover of magazines and dating celebrities).

Forutnately, Speak Now works very well as a pop album. Taylor Swift has a very nice voice, and she can handle quiet songs as easily as upbeat singles. The album has very consistent quality, and the Target exclusive (I no longer work there, so no more disclaimers. Woot!) has three new songs, two acoustic versions, one pop remix, plus the music video for "Mine." Taylor Swift's music still targets the young female audience, but Speak Now is good enough to warrant Swift's mainstream appeal.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


I have to confess, I've never been a fan of Pictionary, preferring games that required more strategy and skill than drawing a picture. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the party Telestrations, which combines Pictionary with the playground game Telephone. Designed for 5-8 players, Telestrations is not just drawing but seeing how different people see different things and illustrate different words.

All players get: a pad with tabs on the bottom, plus a dry-erase marker. At the start of each turn, all players get a card with six words on each side. One person rolls a die, and each player writes the word matching the die roll on their pad, then initials it on the bottom, turns to the next page (which is blank), and passes it to the left. When everyone has their neighbor's pad, a timer is turned, players flip back to the just-written word, and they have 90 seconds to draw that word (and initial the bottom of the page). Players pass their pad to the left, and then players look at the most recent drawing and write what word they think it is. This continues until everyone has the pad they started with, then each player goes through the word-drawing-word on their pad, showing the progression.

Scoring can be either casual (giving points for the most humorous or creative entries) or serious (giving points for the same word twice in a row, or finishing with the starting word), but I've played with no points and it's still fun. Strategy in Telestrations is almost nonexistent, but the real fun is seeing how a word can evolve or change. Some words will stay very close to the original from start to finish (we had "lottery" end as "lottery winner"), but I've also seen "chiropractor" become "x-ray machine" and "wolf" wind up as "the Loch Ness squirrel!" There's not much depth to Telestrations, but it's very easy to teach and play -- and it is very, very funny.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Nick Drake, Way to Blue (Island, 1994)

For somebody who passed away in near complete obscurity over thirty-five years ago, Nick Drake has shown a remarkable ability to not go away.  His following in English folk music circles has steadily increased with each passing year, while a number of TV commercials featuring his music have introduced him to mainstream audiences.  I've had his compilation CD Way to Blue for quite some time, but the recent AT&T commercial that used his song "From the Morning" made me go back and give it a few more listens. So if you were wondering who that singer is, I'll try to make a long story short.

Pathologically shy and clinically depressed, Nick Drake didn't exactly possess star quality.  He did have a talent for the guitar, though, and the ability to express his feelings lyrically.  Joe Boyd, a pioneering figure in the English folk scene of the late sixties who had taken bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle under his wing, recognized Drake's talent and got him signed to Island.  Working with Drake was a challenge for Boyd, however.  For Drake's 1969 debut Five Leaves Left, Boyd backed Drake's guitar and voice with some light orchestration, and also got some help from Fairport Convention's lead guitarist Richard Thompson and Pentangle's bassist Danny Thompson.  (The two Thompsons are not related, but they have since worked together on many different occasions over the years.)  The combination worked well, at least artistically.  Drake's melancholy voice suited his songs well, and the arrangements didn't detract from his singing and playing.  Highlights from this album which made the compilation include the quietly emotional "Cello Song" and the haunting "River Man."  "Way to Blue," featuring just Drake's voice over orchestration, has a dark feel very reminiscent of Billie Holliday's "Gloomy Sunday."  There is a definite jazz influence in Drake's writing, and I can really picture "Way to Blue" being covered like an old jazz standard. Danny Thompson's jazz sensibility proved to be beneficial on the songs where he plays, most noticeably the song "Time Has Told Me."  Despite a healthy number of good songs, Five Leaves Left was a very poor seller.  Island grew frustrated with Drake's inability to promote his own music.  His live shows were characterized by long gaps between songs, during which Drake would obsess over the precision of the tuning without engaging the audience in any way.  Attempts to interview him didn't fare any better, as Drake tended to put people off with his distant, indifferent attitude.

For Drake's next album Bryter Layter, Boyd opted for a fuller band sound in the hopes that a livelier record would get more attention.  Boyd's intentions were good, but the approach backfired.  While the album included a number of strong songs like "One of These Things First," touches like backing singers and horn sections took Drake completely out of his element.  Even with the nice romantic ballad "Northern Sky" serving as a viable single, Bryter Layter didn't even fare as well as its predecessor.  By this point, Island was only as willing to promote Drake as much as Drake promoted himself -- and since Drake wasn't capable of promoting himself, that meant he got no help.

Drake continued to write songs, but he was living with his parents, abusing drugs, and otherwise not functioning particularly well.  He recorded Pink Moon, on which only he performed, over a couple of days in 1972, and dropped the finished masters off at the Island office late on a Friday.  Nobody at Island even knew he was working on an album, and the tapes sat unattended until Monday morning.  Predictably, the album disappeared almost as quickly as it was released, but it was Drake's most compelling work.  The title song, "Things Behind the Sun," and "From the Morning" show Drake's songwriting at its most lyrical, and the absence of accompaniment fit Drake's style far better than any of the more elaborate arrangements on the first two records did.

Drake returned to the studio one last time in 1974 to record four new songs, of which "Black-Eyed Dog" is included on the compilation.  Bare and unnerving, "Black-Eyed Dog" comes across as the work of somebody losing his grip.  Drake succumbed to an overdose of his prescription drugs later that year.  And yet, the story didn't end there.

Way to Blue closes with a song off of Five Leaves Left called "Fruit Tree," on which Nick Drake identifies himself with the (arguably stereotypical) starving artists who have to die before their work gets appreciated. "Fruit tree, fruit tree, open your eyes to another year. They'll all know that you were here when you're gone." Drake seemed resigned to his fate from the beginning of his career, if not much earlier.  Given the universally sympathetic response that Maggie Boyle has received, it does seem that audiences are more willing today to look past a person's psychiatric issues to appreciate his or equally obvious talent. Nick Drake, unfortunately, was a product of the wrong time.

Nick Drake the person will always remain shrouded in mystery. Even those closest to him say they never really knew him. But I guess everything you really need to know about him is contained in his music. Way to Blue contains a number of beautifully written songs that deserve to be remembered.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

A very nice photo montage set to "One of These Things First"